It seems like everyone is quitting their job right now, including a healthy portion of pastors. Including myself. It’s been a long two pandemic years; churchgoers and pastors are exhausted; there are likely many, many more pastoral resignations coming in 2022. I know a number of pastors who are passionate about their work, have strong support systems, and are unlikely to leave. But I know a far larger number of pastors who are completely exhausted, stretched thin, and losing track of what called them into ministry. Is there any way to stop it?
You Can’t Make Anyone Do Anything
The bad news is no. You can’t make anyone do anything, and even if you could, your church wouldn’t be better off if you found a way to blackmail or otherwise guilt your pastor into staying. If you can somehow retain an exhausted pastor, they won’t be able to work at the level you’ve come to expect from them. Sure, they can make worship happen every week, but exhaustion disconnects us from creativity. Your pastor can keep things hobbling along, but they will struggle to keep things healthy.
I quit my pastoral role in June 2021, after the church had done some work to identify its priorities for the next three years. Those priorities included managing its new rental relationship; updating the child safety covenant; and evaluating and most likely overhauling the governance structure. All of these were things that I could do, and all were things that would suck the energy out of me at a point when I already felt isolated and overloaded. I knew I wouldn’t be able to lead the way I hoped, or lead the way I had for the first three years of my contract. I didn’t want to be a leader who functioned at half-capacity. I recognized that I could make a bigger difference in the world, with less strain on my own health, doing something else.
This is the second problem with trying to make a pastor stay: Just as God calls individuals to ministry, God may call them out of ministry. When God calls ministers, God does not specify how or for how long. This is frustrating for congregations, and it’s downright infuriating for pastors. My call into ministry was clear and undeniable and came from outside myself; a word from someone I trusted completely rewrote my future. My exit from ministry was the same—a dear friend made a comment which forced me to recognize that I was more attached to my perception God’s future than God was. I had narrowed my identity and perception to an all-work-and-no-play pastoral role that was not where God believed that I was at my best. And so God called me out of ministry.
Attending to Burnout Before Someone Gets Burned
While leaving ministry is often a calling, it’s often, also, a result of burnout, and there are some things churches can do to make it easier for pastors to stay in their roles.
Pastors often find that loving the people who inside the church does not equate to loving the work environment. The structure of pastoral work is practically designed for burnout: flexible, often inconsistent work hours; undefined goals and vague performance review processes; limited or difficult to take paid time off; infrequent validation or recognition; high expectations to complete products that are minimally used (bulletins, sermon manuscripts, etc.); minimal support structures with excessive supervisory bodies; and often low wages.
Churches that wish to reduce burnout should attend to structure first. Clarify committee roles and responsibilities. Create consistent and affirming review processes. Set an expectation that at the beginning of the year, the pastor schedules at least four full weeks off (at least four). Encourage and enable your pastor to plan for sabbatical. We have significant data that indicates working overtime does not increase productivity; pastors who invest significant additional hours might have closer connections in the congregation and be perceived as “more present,” but that likely won’t create higher quality sermons, better leadership in complex decision-making processes, or creative new ministries. Those will be best achieved by having significant time off for the brain to rest, repair, and be creative.
The leadership, pastoral support, or evaluation committee should also work with the pastor to set annual priorities; this allows the committee to have a comparison point during review processes. Be clear about what expectations the pastor can drop–and be consistent.
In one congregation I worked in, I consistently received feedback that I didn’t spend time with a population of the church (seniors) that was not in my job description (which focused on youth and young adult ministry). The review committee encouraged to attend more events with the seniors, without identifying other job responsibilities I could release—a disconnect that fed into the expectation of longer work hours and never-enough-ness.
Churches who are proactive about creating healthy work structures will find their staff able to remain in those work structures for longer.
No Person is Final
A pastor’s exit ought to be sad. If you’re happy to see your pastor go, it’s way past time for them to leave. That sadness, however, ought to be rooted in a relationship, not an existential crisis of church identity.
When I was in seminary, a professor told our large class, “Never think that you are irreplaceable. The church does not need you, in particular, at all times, in order to function. If they do, you don’t have a church, you have a cult of personality. Work at all times to make sure you can be replaced, and your church will be healthier for it.” All pastors leave eventually, and while they leave holes in congregational hearts, it is the work of the congregation to remember that it needs more than one leader. The work of the church is to be perpetually calling out new leaders.
Every church has a responsibility for raising up new pastors. This requires not just mentoring young people, but supporting mid- and late-career adults searching for new, more values-aligned work.
Ministry requires a core skill set, but the idea that it is a professional career with specialized training is overstated. It’s less rocket science than improvisational jazz. Pastoring is work that varies daily from building a miniature barn inside the sanctuary; digging a labyrinth in the church yard; performing music in worship; navigating Social Security Disability paperwork with a congregant; preparing a meal; managing technology for virtual worship; and more. Churches need pastors with an understanding of scripture, theology, and emerging trends, but churches also benefit from pastors with non-traditional education paths. We need pastors who bring their skill sets from entrepreneurship, social work, teaching, writing, organizing, computer programming, music, and other backgrounds.
Any thriving church, by nature of its thriving, is creating leaders with the core competences of ministry. That is, any church that pursues God’s kingdom-building work, nurtures healthy community, and studies scripture and ethics together, is naturally creating a pool of leaders who can do pastoral work.
No person is final. Very few of us ever experience a pastor who stays with us for a lifetime, or even a half-lifetime. Pastors are designed to be replaced. You will feel closer to some pastors than others and that is okay—a pastor is not your personal on-call emotional support (although they can sometimes serve that role in a crisis); a pastor is a community leader who nurtures collective growth. It is okay to have a favorite or most formative pastor. No one else may be able to replicate that relationship for you. But they can replicate it for someone else in the community who is in a moment of need.
Honor the past, and recognize the ways a pastoral change allows God to set you up for the future.